A group of 12- and 13-year-old students spent the night in White Rock’s extreme-weather shelter last week to get a different perspective on life on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.
The students were joined by St. John Paul II Academy humanities teacher Kevin Beliveau, three other teachers and two parents.
Just like any other operational night, the students had to follow all of the rules of the shelter including not entering the building until 9 p.m., lights out at 11 p.m., and they had to leave the building by 7 a.m. the next day.
However, the most powerful moment of the experience was not the physical arrangements, but the stories told by shelter volunteers.
“They’re tough stories,” Beliveau told Peace Arch News last week.
One story that had particular impact on the students, Beliveau said, was one about a man who last year, during a particularly cold winter season, was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Peace Arch Hospital.
The man didn’t have a place to stay, and shelter volunteers would frequently see him take advantage of the cold weather shelter, which opens during extreme weather events or if the weather nears 0C.
“We have a few kids whose parents are battling cancer right now. I know that kind of rang home for them because they know what that looks like. They know what it feels like watching their parents go through some of the treatment. Just to even imagine a man not having anywhere to sleep after he spends time in the hospital,” Beliveau said.
Beliveau said he could tell the stories had an impact due to not only the questions the students asked, but their silence during the storytelling.
“The silence, I think, was either the kids processing the depth of the intensity of the stories or sometimes almost a little bit of – shock is probably too strong of a word – but a little bit of being overwhelmed by how powerful some of the stories were the staff were sharing.”
St. John Paul II Academy, which is in its second year of operation, is currently using space in the Star of the Sea Parish Centre (formally community hall) until operations move to Morgan Crossing.
Peninsula United Church uses the Parish Centre to operate its extreme-weather shelter.
Beliveau said just by the nature of both groups using the same hall, there was contact between the school and extreme-weather shelter volunteer co-ordinator Joan McMurtry, who helped facilitate the student sleepover event.
Beliveau said the shelter, which was closed to the public the night of the event, was a way to show students that poverty and homelessness is an issue that’s not isolated to Downtown Eastside.
“They have a sense, they know that there are people who are having a difficult time, but they don’t see it in their face in South Surrey and White Rock. They think the poor in the Lower Mainland are all Downtown Eastside or Whalley.” Beliveau said.
“We’re always trying to find a creative way for kids, who often come from a lot of affluence, to see their privilege that they’re born into so often, and try to challenge them to do something about it. The knowledge is the first piece.”
The students were given snacks and a bowl of Cheerios. Students also had to sleep on mats provided to regular guests but the biggest challenge, Beliveau said, was that students were told not to bring their cellphone.
“That was probably the toughest part for the majority of the kids that said no, I can’t do it,” Beliveau said.
“They can sleep on the floor, they can eat popcorn and hot chocolate, they could go to bed early and wake up early. But separate them from their phones? And of the 40 kids in the school, only 12 of the 40 were able to give this a try.”
Lisa van Vliet, one of the parents that participated in the event, described the evening as “solemn, reflective and respectful of the experience.”